For Surfaces, Working With Elton John on 'Learn to Fly' Was 'Like Winning a Grammy'

Stefan Kohli

Colin Padalecki (left) and Forrest Frank of Surfaces.

Lately, every day for Surfaces has felt like the weekend. The Texas-based electro-pop duo comprised of Forrest Frank, 25, and Colin Padalecki, 23, has enjoyed a breakout year in 2020, thanks to their breezy, summer-ready hit "Sunday Best." Though originally released in January 2019, the track experienced a TikTok-fueled boost this past winter, with the app's users utilizing a remixed version of the song in more than 23 million videos to date.

Since the track has gone viral on the platform, the duo has tallied a number of other impressive achievements: They released their new album, Horizons, in February; made their late-night TV debut on Late Night With Seth Meyers in March; and continue to climb with "Sunday Best" on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching a new peak at No. 19 on this week's chart.

Additionally, the duo recently joined forces with Elton John for a new track titled "Learn to Fly," which dropped June 12. Despite Surfaces having no official collaborations prior to the effort, the dreamy, inspiring ballad immediately caught the rock legend's attention. "When the guys first sent me the song, I just loved it," John tweeted. "It was an honour to lend my vocals and some piano."

Below, Padalecki and Frank reflect on the steady ascent of breakout hit "Sunday Best," discuss their favorite memories with the song so far and reveal why collaborating with John was more rewarding than winning a Grammy.

How did you two come together to form Surfaces?

Frank: We both had been making music for a few years separately, and we had these little dorm set-ups with speakers and keyboards and instruments. Neither of us knew anybody that was making music. I saw this song that Colin had posted on SoundCloud -- I just DM'ed him, and we found out that we were actually going to colleges pretty close to each other. So we linked up. We didn’t have big dreams of having huge success -- we just wanted to make music because we liked it. So when we met up, it wasn’t to discuss business. It was literally just to meet another person that made music.

A year later, I graduated and moved to Seattle. I was still working on music all the time. Colin finally hit me up, and we made our first song called, “Be Alright,” which was on our [2017 album] Surf. The rest is history.

How much of a learning curve was there trying to adapt to one another’s musical preferences?

Frank: From the beginning, we’ve rarely jotted an idea down. There might be something that’s kind of on the fence, but 95 percent of the time, it’s just a complete congruency of something that made us want to keep making music together.

Padalecki: We both aspired to make the same kind of music. That’s just what came to be naturally. We had a very similar knack for songwriting, and it made us write really easily together. We always just kind of got along in that aspect. We really never hit any road bumps.

A lot of your hits come together quickly, right? Was that the case for “Sunday Best,” too?

Frank: The way that we like to say it is: That song took us two hours to make, but in order to make it in two hours, it took five, six years of work. The skill set was already there. We had laid the foundation of learning how to produce and learning how to songwrite, so it very quickly fit together. It was a very natural song to make.

What were your initial expectations for the song upon releasing it in January 2019?

Padalecki: We had no idea it was going to be what it is today. It’s not that we didn’t believe in it, but we didn’t have the aspiration that it was going to take over the world. We recorded that song in my college house -- Forrest was literally recording vocals in my closet. He was setting aside clothes, shoving a mic in there and using a headphone cable that barely reached the closet. And we recorded, like, four or five songs in that room. Once it was done, we threw it on a Bluetooth speaker outside and we were looking at each other like, “Man, this is a good one.”

Frank: It [originally] wasn’t a single, which I think speaks to our personalities as musicians. One of the reasons that we’ve succeeded is that our goal was always just to make good music and give our listeners a good experience. So, your typical person would be like, “Oh, this is the hit,” we need to make this a single, we need to make a music video, we need to boost it. And we were like, “No, let’s just save this for the album, so that when the album comes out, the listeners know that there’s a lot of meat coming.”

You signed to 10K Projects in May 2019 following the release of the parent album for “Sunday Best,” Where the Light Is. What was that process like?

Frank: We had a lot of the major labels reach out to us with very similar deals. They’d come to our shows and have recruiters talk to us and take us out to dinner. From a gut feeling, we connected with 10K more because we were doing fine independently. We were really happy with the growth that we’d had, and we had this really cool fan base that we gathered. So we didn’t really see a need for a label, but after connecting with [10K Projects CEO] Elliot Grainge and his team -- and him very clearly communicating that he sees where we’re going -- that gave us more comfort.

What has been your coolest experience with the song so far?

Frank: Performing it live. When we made the song in our bedroom, there was no way to know exactly how people were going to move to it, especially because we hadn’t really toured before. After the first two shows, we realized that the song can be as big as you want it to be. That song became a mosh pit. And it’s positive energy, not negative rage mosh-pitting.

Padalecki: Manhattan was the craziest show of all time. Even though it wasn't the biggest [crowd], “Sunday Best” was like an absolute movie in that concert. That’s definitely a moment where it’s like, “It’s OK if it’s not conquering the world, but this moment right here is definitely something to remember forever.”

How did you find out about the song’s presence on TikTok?

Frank: Our managers are very involved with social media. They showed us the video, and my initial reaction was actually, “Hey, is there any way that we could take that down? I kind of don’t like that.” They messed with the song, but I remember our manager was like, “No, just watch. This thing is going to go crazy.” And sure enough, a month later, it had millions of TikToks made.

Did its virality at all change your marketing plans for Horizons, which arrived shortly thereafter?

Padalecki: No, we’ve never targeted something that was trending. We’ve always tried to stay true to us and to what we’re trying to give as a message to the world. If we ever did make a song for the wrong reasons or stray from what we’re naturally feeling, we know that people would hear through it. And we wouldn’t feel good about putting it out in the first place. Anything you ever hear that we put out is 100 percent genuinely how we feel.

Has there been any difficulty in finding a balance between allowing “Sunday Best” to flourish on the platform without Surfaces becoming known as “TikTok artists”?

Frank: I don’t think fans consider us as TikTok people. We’re not really bucketed into that. I will say, the comment that we do see is fans saying, like, “You’re not our little secret anymore.” I think a lot of them liked that they were early fans and TikTok put us in the mainstream.

Last week, you released a new song with Elton John titled “Learn to Fly.” How did it come together?

Frank: We were [initially] going to release it just as our own, and then our managers were like, “What if we tried to get a feature?” We had just signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group, and I think they were the ones that got us the connection.

Padalecki: Elton John was super passionate off the jump and was really adamant on working on it, which is insane. We got a FaceTime from our managers [on April 18], and we were literally losing our minds at Forrest's house -- screaming, yelling, happiness, joy.

Padalecki: Collaborating with Elton felt like winning a Grammy. I don’t even care what happens with this song statistically -- just knowing what we made and how special it was will be more than satisfying for the rest of my life. You could easily feel over Zoom how adamant and invested he was in the song.

Why is the message in this song an important one to share with the world right now?

Frank: We wanted to put it out during the COVID-19 [pandemic] because we felt like people could really use it. It’s this idea that we all have brokenness in us. We are not perfect people. And that comes out in different ways, whether that be insecurity, fear or guilt. People tell you that you’re not good enough or they try to hold you back. So it’s this visual of saying we’re all broken, but let’s all come together and enjoy life in the midst of it.

Padalecki: It’s inspiring people to grow from the pain they’ve had and learn that we can all open up. Sometimes, we’re too afraid -- we get too comfortable or satisfied, and we’re afraid to realize our full potential. Sometimes, you need that push; fall from that tree and find your wings.

What else should the world know about Surfaces?

Frank: Sometimes, people think that we’re living in ignorant bliss, but we’ve experienced genuine hardships and that’s where this music is coming from. If we were just ignorant, blissful people, we wouldn’t have taken the time to express ourselves through music. We would’ve just socialized our way through life. “Learn to Fly,” for example, or even “Sunday Best,” is an invitation for broken people to be included.

Padalecki: We’re never ones to compare situations with anyone, but we have gone through our own type of adversity. Instead of letting that depression and anxiety consume us, we’ve had the opportunity to turn it into music to help other people feel better about themselves and listen to something that has positive reinforcement. I can personally vouch for it helping me grow as a person. We were able to turn those lows into something good.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 13, 2020 issue of Billboard.